21 March 2005

Hockey, Mexico-style: The Zamboni is broken, and the players are on strike. Sigh


From the Ottawa Citizen

David Agren
Citizen Special

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- The old barn looks like something from the Canadian Prairies with its rounded roof and small ticket booth next to the front door. Inside, a sprinkling of fans shiver on the wooden bleachers, sipping coffee and eating doughnuts. Players in full equipment chase the puck up and down a dimly lit rink.

Welcome to Ice Land in Guadalajara, where turmoil over money plagues the local hockey scene -- just like in Canada. The four adult teams in Mexico's second-largest city packed up their skates and sticks two months ago to protest high rink fees and ice conditions that could charitably be described as horrible.

"The owner doesn't care about maintaining (the rink)," complains Omar Guzman, a defenceman in the recreational league and coach of the peewee and bantam teams here. "The Zamboni doesn't work properly."

The surface in Ice Land is carved to shreds. Puddles cover the back portions of the faceoff circles in the rink's south end. Tire marks from the Zamboni mar the centre ice area. Several feet before the end boards, the ice is a tangled mass of impassible shards. One corner lacks proper boards and glass is missing from behind one of the nets.

Although the rink is third-rate by Canadian standards, the rental fee is high. "It's expensive, Guzman explains. "If this was good, (the price) would be fine."Despite the actions of their adult peers, the peewee and bantam squads still practice on the substandard surface, providing Western Mexico's only live ice hockey fix.

At first glance, these guys resemble a decent Canadian house team. Take number 19: he looks like an average hockey player with his green Dallas Stars jersey, black CCM pants and and white helmet. But while leading a two-on-none break he fans on a pass, loses an edge and slides on his backside into a giant puddle behind the net. With the rink in a state of disrepair, the players move one of the nets 10 feet toward centre to avoid the mess. The puck jumps haphazardly over the players' sticks all practice long.

Obviously, not many youngsters take up ice hockey in soccer-mad Mexico. About 80 players, covering all age groups, skate regularly in Guadalajara, a city of almost five million people. A team from the city travelled to the famous Quebec International Peewee Tournament earlier this year, losing all of its games, including a 14-0 thrashing by a French squad.

Guzman, 25, has suited up for Mexico in several lower-tier world championship tournaments. The team finished in last place on one occasion and near the bottom the rest of the time.

"We have good players," he contends, but the team needs "more support."

Sporting dreadlocks, jeans and a blue Disneyland pullover, he puts the 13 youngsters through a standard series of skating and shooting drills, but takes time during water breaks to make out with his girlfriend, who watches all of his practices and plays with the city's lone female team.

He idolizes New Jersey Devils defenceman Scott Stevens for the way he hits. As practice winds down, he introduces a contact drill; he bodychecks each player -- some half his age -- trying to get by him with the puck. Disgusted with one slacking player, he crosschecks him from behind into the boards -- an infraction that would bring a five-minute major in any Canadian league.

Still, it's a reminder of home for this Canadian -- until the practice ends and the players leave the cold, dark rink for the gentle breeze of a warm Mexican evening.

David Agren is a Canadian writer living in Mexico.

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